Presented on Saturday, October 2018 in the Barn at Quarry Farm as part of the Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium "American Literary History and Economics in the New Gilded Age"
In the early pages of The Gilded Age, we learn that Silas Hawkins, otherwise known as "Squire" Hawkins, has earned his title, not because he has any particular right to it, even by virtue of being the postmaster, "but because in those regions the chief citizens always must have titles of some sort." When he presents his wife with his plans to move the family to Missouri, her response also involves the sense of what her husband should be getting as opposed to what he has actually earned, especially given that every scheme in which he has invested has failed miserably: "You are out of your place, here, among these groping dumb creatures. We will find a higher place, where you can talk with your own kind, and be understood when you speak. In what becomes a consistent theme in the novel, Twain and Warner's Gilded Age anticipates an aspect of free-market capitalism that has become ubiquitous in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. Whether it's the McDonald's slogan, "You deserve a break today," L'Oreal's "Because you're worth it," or the recent Santander Bank campaign , "Get the respect you deserve," the emphasis on individual worth and personal attainment has become a staple selling point of the free market economy. What is less obvious, however - and what Twain and Warner also anticipated - is the hidden implication of the "you deserve" mentality: that others are somehow not as deserving. In the novel, as well as today, it is those in the know who are somehow meritorious. The impact of this attitude - both in The Gilded Age and today - is potentially destructive, both for those who believe it and those affected by it.
Mary McAleer Balkun is Professor and Chair of English at Seton Hall University. She is author of The American Counterfeit: Authenticity and Identity in American Literature and Culture (U.Alabama, 2016), as well as articles on Phillis Wheatley, Sarah Kemble Knight, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. She contributed the "Print Revolution & Paper Money" chapter to the Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics. She is also the associate editor of The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poets and Poetry (2005). Her interests include material culture, gender studies, women's travel narratives, and identity construction. She is currently working on the study of the grotesque in early American literature.